Not long ago I reviewed an old Melodiya recording
of Anton Rubinstein’s Quintet for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op.55. Here it is again though the title Piano Quartet and opus number Op.55bis will give you the clue that this is the version for piano and strings. To my considerable surprise this is apparently making its first ever appearance on disc. So too, it seems, is the companion work, the Piano Quartet in C major, Op.66. Clearly there are many more battles to be won if Rubinstein’s chamber music is to take root.
Published in 1860 as a wind quintet, the guise for piano and strings reduces the personnel by a factor of one. Whilst we know that the composer performed in the Wind Quintet version there is no evidence that he did so in this string version. The piano is, in any case, primus inter pares
in the work. The rich lyric theme parcelled out to the cello is finely played and reminds us that whilst Rubinstein was indebted to Mendelssohn his own scherzos tend to be more muscular affairs and less deft. The slow movement is full of harmonic interest, the piano often to the fore with rippling arpeggios or fiery opulence. The airy and confident swing of the finale owes a bit to Schumannesque drama but it’s played with dash and brio by members of the Locrian Ensemble with Liszt-maestro Leslie Howard the commanding presence at the keyboard.
Composed in 1864 and published two years later the Piano Quartet in C major is indeed ‘urbane and agreeable’. It was very popular at the time and one hear why. Quite why it has disappeared so comprehensively from the repertoire is perhaps less easy to say, but it’s hardly alone in that respect, and Rubinstein has never been much more than a fringe composer. The dainty second subject of the first movement shows what a subtle ensemble can do with it – plenty is what, with this ensemble – and as Rubinstein is quiet elastic with his material there are many opportunities for all the players to stretch out in solo discourse both solemn and more engaged. The slow movement opens with gaunt piano statements, the strings responding in kind to this intensity, and a contrasting songfulness later floods the music led by the strings, the piano decorating around. For a previously unrecorded work this movement alone offers a rich strata of expressive depth. Jump to: the finale opens with ebullience and self-confidence, elements of folklore and even Brahms seeming to coalesce. Rubinstein is not without humour either, as this finale shows.
The performances are splendid – sensitive, energised, and with fine ensemble, duly caught by Hyperion’s engineers at Potton Hall. And the music certainly doesn’t deserve its neglect when advocacy such as this reveals such depths.